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Vachon Is a Star in New Role, Too : As Kings' General Manager, Popular Ex-Goalie Has Turned Team Around

March 19, 1985|CHRIS BAKER | Times Staff Writer

Rogie Vachon was one of the most popular Kings when he played goalie for the club from 1971-78.

He also was one of their best, winning the team's award as most valuable player four times.

"Rogie was a great competitor," said center Marcel Dionne. "His biggest asset was that he never blamed anyone else."

Vachon isn't playing anymore, but, just as in his goalie days, he is in a position to catch a lot of flak. There really hasn't been much of that, though. Hardly any, in fact. That's because Vachon, since being named general manager of the team Jan. 30, 1984, apparently has turned the Kings around.

The Kings, who are having their best season since 1981-82 and who have qualified for the National Hockey League playoffs for the first time in three years, celebrated Sunday night by holding Wayne Gretzky without a goal in a 5-4 victory over the Edmonton Oilers, last season's Stanley Cup champions.

Going into tonight's game against the New York Islanders in Long Island, they have a 32-26-13 record and are just three points behind the third-place Calgary Flames in the Smythe Division.

"I've been pretty lucky so far," Vachon said. "Everything is on schedule."

Fan interest in the Kings is perhaps at its highest level since Vachon left the club after the 1977-78 season to sign with the Detroit Red Wings as a free agent. The Kings have sold out eight times this season, a club record.

The Kings retired Vachon's jersey last month, but if things continue going so well for the Kings, Vachon may eventually be remembered more for his administrative than playing abilities. His rise, since his playing days, has been a rapid one.

He was hired as a part-time goalie coach in February of 1982, then was named a full-time assistant coach before last season.

When the Kings fired Coach Don Perry last winter, Vachon was appointed as interim head coach.

His tenure was short--two games--but Vachon, with a 1-0-1 record, was the Kings' only unbeaten coach when he was named to succeed George Maguire as general manager.

"I never saw myself as a general manager when I came here as an assistant coach," Vachon said. "It was a complete surprise to me."

Vachon may be a candidate for executive of the year in the NHL now, but it didn't look that way last summer, when he made what many hockey insiders considered a questionable deal. Just before the NHL draft in June, Vachon traded the Kings' No. 3 pick to Chicago for minor-league goalie Bob Janecyk and the Black Hawks' sixth-round pick.

The Black Hawks used the Kings' choice to select U.S. Olympian Ed Olczyk, and the Kings drafted Canadian Olympian Craig Redmond. Janecyk was the key for the Kings, though, and the deal has been one of the keys to their success this season.

Janecyk, who bumped around in the minors from 1979-84, has proven that he can play in the NHL.

Goaltending had been one of the Kings' biggest problem areas in recent seasons. None of the five goalies who played for the Kings last season are with the team now. Janecyk and rookie goalie Darren Eliot have split time in the nets this season.

Vachon said the Kings are getting the best goaltending they have had in recent seasons, and he figures to know something about that subject. As a player, he won the Vezina Trophy, awarded annually to the NHL's best goalie, and played in two All-Star games.

Making the deal look even better, Redmond has become one of the Kings' top defensemen.

"It was a calculated risk, but it has worked out," Vachon said of the trade, calling it one of the highlights of his brief tenure as general manager.

Vachon also cleaned house last summer, releasing 21 players in the biggest purge in club history.

One of his other big moves was redoing the Kings' difficult travel schedule. Because of their location here, the Kings travel more miles than any other NHL team. Vachon arranged the 1984-85 schedule so that games on the East Coast were combined to cut down on travel time. Several times last season, the Kings played on the East Coast, then flew home for a game the next night.

Vachon's other major move was the hiring of Pat Quinn as coach. Quinn, former coach of the Philadelphia Flyers, has been credited with getting the most out of the team on the ice.

"I think getting Pat has really helped us," Vachon said. "He's a heck of a teacher."

Vachon thought Quinn had run a good training camp and that the Kings would get off to a good start when the season opened last October. Instead, the Kings went winless in their first nine games (0-6-3), their worst start ever.

Vachon didn't panic, though, and his patience paid off.

He, in fact, may have provided the turning point. After the Edmonton Oilers had routed the Kings, 8-2, Oct. 26, Vachon went to the locker room and tore into the team.

"It was something that I had to do," Vachon said. "I didn't do it because we lost, but because of the way we lost. I didn't want the players to take advantage of Pat.

"So, I told them that if they didn't want to be here, we would send them down to the minors."

The Kings skated off to a seven-game winning streak right after Vachon's little speech.

The Kings have become stronger as the season goes on and are well over .500 now.

"I don't think we expected to play .500 hockey," Vachon said. "We would have been satisfied making the playoffs. The team is playing better than I expected."

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